Hardly Mary Poppins: The Addict as a Parent

By Deborah Bosley 05/07/15

I may have been with him in body, but I was never truly present. And then I got sober.

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Few things challenge and destabilize our notions of parenthood more than addiction. While mired in active addiction, becoming a parent is the dream we fervently hope will put the brakes on a destructive lifestyle. It was always the next big event which held the promise of turning me into the moderate person I longed to be. "When I get the right job my drinking will calm down," or "when I find the right relationship I won’t need to use," followed by "when I move out of the city I’ll be happier and won’t keep getting trashed." All these events came to pass, yet the longed for change in my behavior never materialized. But surely when I had a baby everything would change?

I can never undo those early days and my son will never get back those first seven years of his life. 

At the age of 32, I gave birth to my son. At last the time had come to settle down, put the craziness of my misspent youth behind me, and become the doting parent I had always imagined I would be. It was certainly true that the child was adored. He fulfilled my long cherished dream of becoming a mother, was clean, well-fed and his tiny items of clothing immaculately laundered. I took him for long country walks in his stroller with the dog, cuddled and played with him, constantly chatted away to him and met his every need. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

But Mary Poppins I was not. Despite this priceless gift, and my seemingly responsible behavior, there was a sense of profound disengagement. I spent the long hours of the day with him longing to be elsewhere, to be alone with my bottle and my joint, lost in that murky other world. I would have told you in all truth that I loved my child very much more than my own life—yet I thought nothing of leaving him alone in the house in his crib so that I could go and buy more booze. If the guilt of such reckless abandonment proved too much for my twisted conscience, I would strap him into the car and with several bottles of wine already inside me, drive miles through narrow, twisting country lanes at great speeds to buy more bottles. My desire to be the best mother I could, and to nurture my child, was utterly eclipsed by the need to continually change the way I felt. 

Caring for a small child can be a dull and grueling business. The early starts and long days spent frequently without adult company can be testing for even the most sober character, but for the self-centered alcoholic, it is crippling. To cope, I was spending my entire time with my little child in a state of altered consciousness. For the first few months of his life, I was just about able to function, but within a short space of time, the wheels began to come off. I was either staggering around the house drunk and incapable, or so hungover that I was strung out and in a state of irritable fury. I became irrationally resentful that this angelic infant was coming between me and my true love—oblivion.

I first came into AA when my son was 18-months-old, when I was able to admit to myself that the dream of parenthood having the power to sober me up had proved little more than wishful thinking. If it had stopped there it may have been a happy ending of sorts, but it was only the first of many half-hearted attempts to surrender. I spent the next six years in-and-out of AA, longing to be a decent human being and responsible mother, but always putting drink and drugs before the child that depended on me to get his every need met. Occasionally, when the guilt became too much, I could swear off the drink, but only by substituting it for marijuana. I never managed more than a handful of truly sober days in the first seven years of his life. 

His father, a long-suffering and patient man, was not blind to the situation. From time-to-time he would confront me with the grisly truth, and I would promise, in all sincerity, that it would change. Of course, it never did. I felt as baffled as he to find myself stuck in an endless loop of drunkenness and remorse. When the nightmare finally came to an end it did so not with a bang, but a whimper. I had taken my son to a children’s party at lunchtime but had not returned home until nine o’clock at night, clearly the worse for wear. My partner looked at me and said in a quiet, weary voice, "You’ve done it again, haven’t you? You’ve driven drunk with him in the car." What I saw in his face, at that moment, was utter defeat—the complete loss of hope. There was no angry scene, but in those few silent seconds his despair punctured the layers of denial and defiance I had so carefully constructed year upon year. 

The very next day I went to a meeting, cried my eyes out, and for the first time sincerely asked for help. I had been trying to do it my way, powered by little more than the willpower which was no defense against the first drink. After years of thinking people were fools for saying "just for today" (when I knew full well it was the rest of my life), I truly surrendered and got the hang of staying sober for 24 hours at a time. The beginnings of any recovery are raw and painful but I kept it simple, got to as many meetings as I could and worked with a sponsor. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months and finally years. 

I can never undo those early days and my son will never get back those first seven years of his life. When I ask him what he remembers from my drinking and using days he says, "You just weren’t really there Mum; you always seemed so far away." I may have been with him in body, but I was never truly present. I have struggled to make living amends on a daily basis but the guilt for those wasted years has never quite disappeared. Nor did I suddenly become a perfect mother. I am still prone to being moody and taciturn and, like any other parent, will kickback when he pushes me too far. But I am here for him now and show up for every day of his life. For the last 10 years, I have attended all his sports matches and parent meetings, dutifully ferried him from place-to-place, listened to his hopes, consoled his disappointments and done my best to guard his dreams. He always knows where to find me and when he calls, I am there. 

Today, he is a young man of 17, looking to a future bright with hope. I can never undo the damage of those early years, but neither do I want to forget. Those memories, along with faithful meeting attendance and working a program, are my insurance against a return to using. 

I have become that slightly dull but reliable woman with her arms in the kitchen sink and it feels wonderful. 

Deborah Bosley is a writer and novelist based in the UK. She last wrote about depression and recovery.

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